John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.
It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Elvis Presley and thousands of others.
Why this popularity?
The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes. The poetry is rich. The song presents the Gospel of Grace. Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity. It’s the complete package.
New Choruses to Old Songs
Feelings are becoming more and more important in our culture. Have you noticed that people no longer say, “I think” anymore? They always say, “I feel.” Although emotions are important, they are often given too much authority in our culture.
We can see this swing in contemporary worship music. Choruses are added to the old favourites to give them the emotional lift they lacked in their original form. The music goes higher, the vowels go longer, hearts rise up, hands join hearts . . .
There is nothing wrong with the addition of new choruses. We can critique older styles of worship for not engaging enough of our emotions and these new choruses actually lead to more holistic worship. The new choruses do go wrong when they are emotion for emotion’s sake–one of the indications that the mind is not invited into this emotional climax is that the words don’t really mean anything, or worse, they fail to connect to the rest of the song, or worse, they are incomprehensible.
Why the need to add to the good ol’ hymns?
I get it. Times are different. We like choruses now. The old hymns don’t have choruses.
Why do we like choruses? Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very emotional. Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large. More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.
We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing. Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings. The original “Amazing Grace” was not written with an emotional climax, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with a building and rising melody that pulla our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don’t feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately. #worship #hymns ” quote=”Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don’t feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.”]
It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings. Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose. I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.
Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.
The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form. Fine. Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite. They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain. #worship #hymns” quote=”Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.”]
Metaphors are Magic
Metaphors are amazing things. They are comparisons. Properly executed something magical can happen in the comparison. “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:
- Life is a path with hidden snares.
- Heaven is home.
- Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
- Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
- God is our shield.
These metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations. And they contribute to holistic worship. Let’s look at one of these metaphors.
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield. All kinds of meaning flow from this comparison. Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives. But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection. It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one. This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.
Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous
Mixed metaphors are not magical.
On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a comparison that doesn’t work.
First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:
“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”
These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have
I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.
The comparison is nonsensical.
Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic. It just leaves us puzzled.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep. #mychainsaregone #mixedmetaphor #worship #hymns” quote=”Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.”]
Tomlin’s Mixed Metaphor
The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns climaxes on a mixed metaphor.
My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace
“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor. It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood. But floods don’t reign. This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.” Or soars, or melts, or skates.
Floods flow. They overwhelm. They cover and destroy. They glut, stream, spate and surge. For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.
If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.
Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing. It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into the worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations. #holisticworship” quote=”It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into the worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations.”]
In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing. More importantly, I explain why we ought to.
Thank you for posting this. I was transliterating this song for church to sign in American Sign Language. I got to the line “And like a flood His mercy reigns“ and I was stumped. I looked up how other interpreters signed this and it looks like they were equally unsure what they were signing. I signed it Jesus’ Mercy Overwhelms (me understood)
I sometimes wonder if I am the only person in the world who pays attention to the words that I am singing in church. I now realize that I am not alone. The signer is right there with me. Thank you for the comment, and than you for reading.